History of Turkmenistan

While the ancient history of early Turkmenistan is largely shrouded in mystery, its past since the arrival of Indo-European Iranian tribes around 2000 BC is often the starting point of the area's discernible history. Early tribes were nomadic or semi-nomadic due to the arid conditions of the region as the steppe culture in Central Asia was an extension of a larger Eurasian series of horse cultures which spanned the entire spectrum of language families including the Proto-Indo-Europeans and Altaic groups. Some of the known early Iranian tribes included the Massagatae, Scythians/Sakas, and early Soghdians (most likely precursors of the Khwarezmians). Turkmenistan was a passing point for numerous migrations and invasions by tribes which gravitated towards the settled regions of the south including ancient Mesopotamia, Elam, and the Indus Valley Civilization.

The region's written history begins with the region's conquest by the Achaemenid Empire of ancient Persia, as the region was divided between the satrapys of Margiana, Chorasmia and Parthia. Later conquerors included Alexander the Great, the Parni, Ephthalites, Huns, Gokturks, Sarmatians, and Sassanid Persians. During this early phase of history, the majority of Turkmenistan's inhabitants were either adherents of Zoroastrianism or Buddhism and the region was largely dominated by Iranian peoples. However, these incursions and epochs, though pivotal, did not shape the region's history as the invasions of two later invading groups: Muslim Arabs and the Oghuz Turks. The vast majority of inhabitants were converted to the Sunni variant of Islam, while the Oghuz brought the Turkic Turkmen language that came to dominate the area. The Turkic period was a time of cultural fusion as Islamic traditions brought by the Arabs merged with local Iranian cultures and then were further altered by Turkic invaders and rulers such as the Seljuks. Genghis Khan and Mongol invasions devastated the region during the late Middle Ages, but their hold upon the area was transitional as later Timur Leng and Uzbeks contested the land.

Modern Turkmenistan was radically transformed by the invasion of the Russian Empire, which conquered the region in the late 19th century. Later, the Russian Revolution of 1917 would ultimately transform Turkmenistan from an Islamic tribal society to a totalitarian Leninist one during the Soviet era. Independence came in 1991, as Saparmurat Niyazov, a former local communist party boss, declared himself absolute ruler for life as Turkmenbashi or Leader of the Turkmen and transitioned the newly independent Turkmenistan into an authoritarian state under his absolute control and has thus far resisted the democratization that has influenced many of the other former Soviet Republics. Niyazov ruled until his death on December 21, 2006.

Ancient history

The territory of Turkmenistan has been populated since ancient times, especially the areas near oasis of Merv, where traces of human settlements have been found. Tribes of horse-breeding Iranian Scythians drifted into the territory of Turkmenistan at about 2,000 BC, possibly from the Russian steppes and moved along the outskirts of the Karakum desert into Persia, Syria, and Anatolia.

The scant remains point to some sparse settlements in the region, including possibly early neanderthals, but the region as a whole remains largely unexplored. Bronze Age and Iron Age finds do support the probability of advanced civilizations in ancient Turkmenistan including finds at Djeitun and Gonur Tepe.

Alexander the Great conquered the territory in the 4th century BC on his way to South Asia. In 330 BC, Alexander marched northward into Central Asia and founded the city of Alexandria near the Murgab River. Located on an important trade route, Alexandria later became the city of Merv (modern Mary). The ruins of Alexander's ancient city are still to be found and have been extensively researched. After Alexander's death his empire quickly fell apart. The Parthians- fierce, nomadic warriors from the north of Iran —then established the kingdom of Parthia, which covered present-day Turkmenistan and Iran. The Parthian kings ruled their domain from the city of Nisa - an area now located near the modern-day capital of Ashgabat.

Nisa is described by some as one of the first capitals of the Parthians. It was traditionally founded by Arsaces I (reigned c. 250–211 BC), and was reputedly the royal necropolis of the Parthian kings, although it has neither been established that the fortress at Nisa was a royal residence nor a mausoleum.

Excavations at Nisa have revealed substantial buildings, mausoleums and shrines, many inscribed documents, and a looted treasury. Many Hellenistic art works have been uncovered, as well as a large number of ivory rhytons, the outer rims decorated with Iranian subjects or classical mythological scenes.

The Parthian Kingdom succumbed in 224 AD to the Sasanids - rulers of Persia. At the same time, several tribal groups—including the Alans and the Huns —were moving into Turkmenistan from the east and north. A branch of the Huns wrested control of southern Turkmenistan from the Sasanian Empire in the 5th century A.D, this records first evidence of nomadic Non-Iranian peoples into the area of Turkmenistan.

Arab invasion and Islamization

At this time much of the population was already in settlements around the fertile river valleys along the Amu Darya, and Merv and Nisa became centers of sericulture (the raising of silkworms). A busy caravan route, connecting Tang Dynasty China and the city of Baghdad (in modern Iraq), passed through Merv. Thus, the city of Merv constituted an important prize for any conqueror.

Central Asia came under Arab control after a series of invasions in the late 7th and early 8th centuries and was incorporated into Islamic Caliphate divided between provices of Mawara'un Nahr and Khorasan. The Arab conquest brought Islamic religion to all of the peoples of central Asia. The city of Merv was occupied by lieutenants of the caliph Uthman ibn Affan, and was constituted as the capital of Khorasan. Using this city as their base, the Arabs, led by Kotaiba (Qotaiba) ibn Moslim, brought under subjection Balkh, Bokhara, Fergana and Kashgaria, and penetrated into China as far as the province of Kan-suh early in the 8th century.

Merv achieved some political spotlight in February 748 when Abu Muslim (d. 750) declared a new Abbasid dynasty at Merv, and set out from the city to conquer Iran and Iraq and establish a new capital at Baghdad. Abu Muslim was famously challenged by the Goldsmith of Merv to do the right thing and not make war on fellow Muslims. The Goldsmith was put to death.

In the latter part of the 8th century Merv became obnoxious to Islam as the centre of heretical propaganda preached by al-Muqanna "The Veiled Prophet of Khorasan". In 874 Arab rule in Central Asia came to an end. During their dominion Merv, like Samarkand and Bokhara, was one of the great schools of learning, and the celebrated historian Yaqut studied in its libraries. Merv produced a number of scholars in various branches of knowledge, such as Islamic law, Hadith, history, literature, and the like. Several scholars have the name: Marwazi  designating them as hailing from Merv.

Oghuz Tribes

First mention of Oghuz goes back to the time prior to the Gokturk state- there are references to the Sekiz-Oghuz ("eight-Oghuz") and the Dokuz-Oghuz ("nine-Oghuz") union. The Oghuz Turks under Sekiz-Oghuz and the Dokuz-Oghuz state formations ruled different areas in the vicinity of the Altay mountains. During the establishment of the Gokturk state, Oghuz tribes inhabited the Altay mountain region and also lived along the Tula River. They also formed as a community near the Barlik river in present-day northern Mongolia.

After the fall of Gokturk kingdom, Oghuz tribes migrated to the area of Transoxiana, in western Turkestan, in modern Kazakhstan and Kirghizstan. This land became known as the "Oghuz steppe" which is an area between the Caspian and Aral Seas. Ibn al-Athir, an Arab historian, stated that the Oghuz Turks had come to Transoxiana in the period of the caliph Al-Mahdi in the years between 775 and 785. In the period of the Abbasid caliph Al-Ma'mun (813 – 833), the name Oghuz starts to appear in the Islamic historiography. By 780, the eastern parts of the Syr Darya were ruled by the Karluk Turks and the western region (Oghuz steppe) was ruled by the Oghuz Turks.


In 1040 the Seljuk Turks crossed the Oxus from the north, and having defeated Masud, sultan of Ghazni, raised Toghrul Beg, grandson of Seljuk, to the throne of Persia, founding the Seljukid dynasty, with its capital at Nishapur. A younger brother of Toghrul, Daud, took possession of Merv and Herat. Toghrul was succeeded by his nephew Alp Arslan (the Great Lion), who was buried at Merv. It was about this time that Merv reached the zenith of her glory. During the reign of Sultan Sanjar or Sinjar of the same house, in the middle of the 11th century, Merv was overrun by the Turkish tribes of the Ghuzz from beyond the Oxus. It eventually passed under the sway of the rulers of Khwarizm (Khiva). After mixing with the settled peoples in Turkmenistan, the Oguz living north of the Kopet-Dag Mountains gradually became known as the Turkmen.

The Seljuk empire broke down in the second half of the 12th century, and the Turkmen became independent tribal federation.

Mongols and Timurids

In 1157, the rule of Seljuks dynasty came to an end in the province of Khorasan. The Turkic rulers of Khiva took control of the area of Turkmenistan, under the title of Khwarezmshahs In 1221, central Asia suffered a disastrous invasion by Mongol warriors who swept across the region from their base in eastern Asia.

Under their commander, Genghis Khan, the Mongols conquered Khwarezm and burned the city of Merv to the ground. The Mongol leader ordered the massacre of Merv's inhabitants as well as the destruction of the province's farms and irrigation works. The Turkmen who survived the invasion retreated northward to the plains of Kazakhstan or westward to the shores of the Caspian Sea.

Small, semi-independent states arose under the rule of the region's tribal chiefs later in 14 century. In the 1370’s, the Mongol leader Timur The Lame (known as Tamerlane in Europe), a self-proclaimed descendant of Genghis Khan, conquered Turkmen states once more and established the short lived Timurid Empire, which collapsed after Timur's death in 1405, when Turkmens became independent once again.#

Turkmenistan in 16-17 centuries

The history of Turkmenistan from the 16 until 19 century was determined by the relations among the state of Persia, Khiva, and Bukhara. However, wars of the period took place mostly in the lands of Turkmenistan. The invasion of Abul Gazi Bahadur Khan, ruler of Khanate of Khiva who was in power between 1645 and 1663 caused some difficulties to the Turkmens, coupled with the impact of the drought that occurred at about the same period, most of the Turkmens within the khanate moved to areas around Akhal, Atrek, Murgap and Tedjen. In this period, many of the Turkmens tribes living around the Lake Aral left also migrated because of pressures from both the Khanate of Khiva and the Kalmyks and migrated to around Astrakhan and Stavropol in northern Caucasus.

Popular epic such as Korogly, and other oral traditions, took shape during this period which could be taken as a beginning of Turkmen nation. The poets and thinkers of the time such as Devlet Mehmed Azadi and Makhtumkuli became a voice for an emerging nation, calling for unity, brotherhood and peace among Turkmen tribes. Makhtumkuli is venerated in Turkmenistan as the father of the national literature.

Russian Colonization and Great Game

In the following 18 century Turkoman tribes came into contact with Tsarist Empire; after the suppression of Bukhara and Khiva emirate, Russians decided to move into Transcaspian region, allegedly to subdue Turkmen slave trade and banditry. Russia sent forces to Turkmenistan (then called Transcaspia) under General Mikhail Skobelev, and in 1881 fighting climaxed with the massacre of 7,000 Turkmen at the desert fortress of Geok Depe, near modern Ashgabat; another 8,000 were killed trying to flee across the desert. By 1894 imperial Russia had taken control of all of Turkmenistan.

The Transcaspian Railway was started from the shores of the Caspian in 1879 in order to secure Russian control over the region and provide a rapid military route to the Afghan border. In 1885 a crisis was precipitated by the Russian annexation of the Pendjeh oasis, to the south of Merv, on a territory of modern Afghanistan, which nearly led to war with Britain 1.[4] as it was thought that the Russians were planning to march on to Herat in Afghanistan. Until 1898 Transcaspia was part of the Governor-Generalship of the Caucasus and administered from Tiflis, but in that year it was made an Oblast of Russian Turkestan and governed from Tashkent. Nevertheless Turkestan remained an isolated colonial outpost, with an administration that preserved many distinctive features from the previous Islamic regimes, including Qadis' courts and a 'native' administration that devolved much power to local 'Aksakals' (Elders). In 1897 the Transcaspian Railway reached Tashkent, and finally in 1906 a direct rail link with European Russia was opened across the steppe from Orenburg to Tashkent. This led to much larger numbers of Slavic settlers flowing into Turkestan than had hitherto been the case, and their settlement was overseen by a specially created Migration Department in St. Petersburg (Переселенческое Управление). This caused considerable discontent amongst the local Turkmen population, as mainly Russian-populated cities such as Ashgabat appeared.

The best-known Military Governor to have ruled the region from Ashkhabad was probably General Kuropatkin, whose authoritarian methods and personal style of governance made the province very difficult for his successors to control and led to a revolt in 1916. Consequently the administration of Transcaspia became a byword for corruption and brutality within Russian Turkestan, as Russian administrators turned their districts into petty fiefdoms and extorted money from the local population. In 1908 Count Konstantin Konstantinovich Pahlen led reforming Commission to Turkestan which produced a monumental report detailing these abuses of power, administrative corruption and inefficiency.

Revolution and Civil War

Following the October Revolution of 1917 in Russia, Ashgabat became a base for anti-Bolshevik counter-revolutionaries, who soon came under attack from the Tashkent Soviet. The Communists succeeded in taking control of Ashkhabad in the summer of 1918, forming a Soviet. In response, Junaid Khan - tribal chief and forces loyal to the old Russian regime joined together to drive out the Communists. In July 1919, these anti-Communist allies established the independent state of Transcaspia. A small British force from Meshed occupied Ashgabat and parts of southern Turkmenistan until 1919. It is alleged that 26 Baku Commissaires were gunned down by British forces or their Transcaspian allies. The region was one of the last centres of Basmachi resistance to Bolshevik rule, with the last of the rebellious Turkoman feeling across the border to Afghanistan and Iran in 1922-3.

Soviet Union

In 1924, the Turkestan ASSR was dissolved, and the Turkmen SSR became one of the republics of the Soviet Union. At this time the modern borders of Turkmenistan were formed. The Turkmen SSR was under full control of Moscow, which exploited its raw materials resources for the purposes of the Soviet Union. Sovereignty was only a formality, since Moscow ultimately ruled all Soviet states. Incensed by attempts from Moscow to end their nomadic lifestyle, establish collective farms, and destroy their religion, Turkman basmachi staged guerrilla warfare against the communist government until 1936. More than a million Turkmen fled into exile in Afghanistan or Iran. Of the 441 mosques that existed in Turkmenistan in 1911, only 5 remained open in 1941. In the meantime, the ethnic balance of Turkmenistan was altered by an influx of thousands of Russian immigrants from other parts of the Soviet Union.

Soviets renamed Ashgabat into Poltoratsk after a local revolutionary, however the name "Ashgabat" was restored in 1927 to please the local population, though it was usually known by the Russian form "Ashkhabad". From this period onward the city experienced rapid growth and industrialisation, although this was severely disrupted by a major earthquake on October 6, 1948. An estimated 7.3 on the Richter scale, the earthquake killed over 110,000 (2/3 the population of the city), however the official number announced by Soviet news was only 14,000.

In the 1950s, the 1375 kilometer long Qaraqum Canal was built. Draining the Amu-Darya river, it enabled huge areas to be opened for cotton production, but resulted in the destruction of the native riparian tugai forests. It also greatly diminished the inflow of water to the Aral Sea, resulting in an ecological catastrophe.

Turkmenistan remained one of the most economically and socially backward republics in USSR, with largely agrarian economy, despite exploration and exploitation of enormous oil and gas resources - discovery of 62 trillion cubic feet Dawletabad gas field in 1960s became the largest gas field find in the world outside Russia and Middle East.

Independence and Turkmenbashi

Turkmenistan became independent on October 27, 1991, amidst the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The former head of Turkmenistan's Communist Party at the time of independence, Saparmurad Niyazov, was elected president of the newly independent nation in an uncontested election. The authoritarian Niyazov, who has assumed the title of "Turkmenbashi", or "Leader of all Turkmen", was accused of developing a totalitarian cult of personality. His opus, the Ruhnama, is a mandatory reading in Turkmenistan's schools and months of the calendar have been renamed after members of his family. Opposition parties are banned in Turkmenistan and the government controls all sources of information. In December of 1999, Turkmenistan's constitution was amended to allow Niyazov to serve as president for life.

Niyazov was the main proponent of Turkmenistan's constitutional neutrality. Under this policy, Turkmenistan does not participate in any military alliance and does not contribute to United Nations monitoring forces. This in fact means an internal isolation of Turkmenistan from world politics.

In late 2004, Niyazov met with former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien to discuss an oil contract in Turkmenistan for a Canadian corporation. In March 2005, news of this meeting caused an uproar amongst opposition circles in Canada, who claimed the affair could damage Chretien's legacy.

In 2005, Niyazov announced that his country would downgrade its links with the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose alliance of post-Soviet states; he furthermore promised free and fair elections by 2010 in a move that surprised many Western observers.

Niyazov acknowledged having heart disease in November, 2006. On December 21, 2006, Niyazov died unexpectedly, leaving no heir-apparent and an unclear line of succession. A former deputy prime minister rumored to be the illegitimate son of Niyazov,Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow, became acting president, although under the constitution the Chairman of the People's Council, Owezgeldi Atayew, should have succeeded to the post. However, Atayew was accused of crimes and removed from office.

Recent history

In an election on February 11, 2007, Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow was elected president with 89% of the vote and 95% turnout, although the election was condemned by outside observers.

Following his election, Berdimuhammedow moved to reduce foreign isolation and reversed some of Niyazov's more egocentric and damaging policies. Internet cafes offering free and uncensored Web access opened in Ashgabat, compulsory education was extended from nine to ten years and classes in sports and foreign languages were re-introduced into the curriculum, and the government announced plans to open several specialized schools for the arts. President Berdimuhammedow has called for reform of education, health care and pension systems, and government officials of non-Turkmen ethnic origin who had been sacked by Niyazov have returned to work.

President Berdimuhammedow began to reduce the personality cult surrounding Niyazov and the office of the president. He has called for an end to the elaborate pageants of music and dancing that formerly greeted the president on his arrival anywhere, and has said that the Turkmen "sacred oath", part of which states that the speaker's tongue should shrivel if he ever speaks ill of Turkmenistan or its president, should not be recited multiple times a day but reserved for "special occasions." Previously the oath was recited at the beginning and end of TV news reports, by students at the beginning of the school day, and at the beginning of virtually all meetings of any official nature that took place in the country.

Recently, Berdimuhammedow has restored the names of the months and days of the week (Niyazov had renamed them after himself and his mother), and announced plans to move the infamous gold rotating statue of Niyazov from Ashgabat's central square.